By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Following the legislative meeting on Feb. 11, during which council revisited the controversial Seminary Road restructuring, Alexandria Fire Chief Corey Smedley and Acting Assistant Fire Chief Michael Cross sat down with the Times to discuss the road-diet-related drama that has been swirling around the fire department.
Council voted in September to implement a road diet on a .9-mile stretch of Seminary Road, narrowing the road from four to two travel lanes. After the majority of the changes were applied in the fall, a very vocal group of residents alleged traffic has gotten much worse, many of them posting photos of their congested commutes in a 1,500-member Facebook group. Sprinkled among the photos are posts accusing city staff of misconduct and complaining about the four city councilors who voted in favor of the road diet.
The Alexandria Fire Department has also become a recurring topic in the ongoing Seminary Road conversation. Residents continue to call into question whether emergency vehicles can quickly and safely travel along a narrower road, especially considering Inova Alexandria Hospital falls on the .9-mile stretch of road. Residents have also questioned AFD’s involvement in the restructuring itself.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Seminary Hill Association obtained the written communications between AFD and Department of Transportation and Environmental Services staff for a six-month period beginning May 1, 2019 – the period during which most design and community engagement discussions for the Seminary Road restructuring occurred.
Cross and Smedley say the documents – and what’s been written about them – don’t tell the full story.
“What the FOIA did was take pieces of the puzzle and not the whole,” Smedley said.
A general conclusion from the FOIA documents – one that has been published in the opinion and news pages of the Times – was that the fire department did not have significant input on whether to narrow the road. While that conclusion has frustrated some of the road diet’s opposition, Cross and Smedley pushed back that their input was taken into consideration when it mattered – on the design that was eventually implemented.
“We have worked with T&ES to design what we need to be able to safely navigate through and be able to traverse that space,” Cross said.
“We are not engineers,” Smedley said, “but when engineers come to us about options to consider for redesigning the roadways, we provide our input, and we did provide that input, and they took that input into consideration, and that’s what you see on the roadway right now.”
The AFD representatives also pushed back on allegations that the city had strong-armed the fire department into supporting a certain stance.
“No one is going to force me … to put people in harm’s way – the first responders or the people that we’re charged to protect,” Smedley said. “That’s my number one goal, and that goal can be accomplished with however many lanes are on the roadway, as long as certain measures are in place. If that is being jeopardized, I will dig in hard.”
When asked specifically whether they would prefer four lanes or two lanes, both Cross and Smedley declined to take a stance.
“Four lanes, two lanes, it’s immaterial,” Cross said. “We’re going to opine on what we need in order to be able to safely navigate it. So it’s a community conversation at city council, it’s a community conversation with Traffic and Parking Board about whether they want to have big wide roads or small narrow roads. That’s a community conversation. We’re going to weigh in on: if it’s four lanes, this is what we need, if it’s two lanes, this is what we need.”
“It’s obvious that more lanes anywhere is great,” Smedley said. “If we can keep the bikes on a bike path, if we can keep the scooter on the scooter path, that’s great. The reality is there are many users of the roadway and no roadway is designed specifically for emergency vehicles. … What we are concerned about is that whatever roadway design is being considered, then certain measures are in place so that we can traverse that roadway.”
Smedley and Cross continued to reiterate that the conversations detailed in the FOIA emails were moot, since AFD vehicles can “traverse the roadway” as it was eventually adopted.
Cross said he was frustrated that certain FOIA emails were taken out of context, including a June 12 email in which Cross details his concerns with staff’s recommended restructuring – an alternative that was never chosen.
“There were questions coming up from one of my emails that was a pretty detailed email, but it was referring to something very specific, but it’s not captured in that email what it was specifically,” Cross said. “… We had concerns with an option that didn’t even come forward and that’s not always captured [by the FOIAed emails.]”
Smedley said the community’s fixation with the fire department itself has been frustrating.
“We want to be as transparent as transparent can be, so that we can inform the community,” Smedley said. “More importantly, it feels [like] damage control now. … Our priority and our responsibility [is] with the protection of life and property. Things like this take away from that.”
Smedley said that AFD’s emergency vehicle drivers haven’t had issues with the road and that AFD stands behind the road changes.
“There is no way I’m going to allow anyone – mayor, president or anyone – to force me into a decision that’s going to put the first responders and the community at risk. Period,” Smedley said.
(Read more: City responds to Seminary Road inquires)